"Where you goin'?"
"I'll ask him what he's going to do with his life, and he'll say, 'Don't worry about it,' but I do," says his father. "If I mention to him, 'Spring training opened today,' he'll just say, 'Yep.' He doesn't want to hear it from me. He keeps saying that part of his life's over."
It all started with Paul Fidrych, a superb athlete whose dream and thigh bone snapped one day when he was playing football in high school. Rather than talk of what he was or could have been, Paul spent hours hitting ground balls and pop-ups, squatting like a catcher for his only son, quietly feeding the dream to him. He coached Mark's team in Little League and Babe Ruth, and during the hush when his son stood at the foul line in a high school basketball game, you could hear Paul Fidrych holler, "Concentrate, Mahk, concentrate!"
With a baseball in his hand, or a snowball or a rock, Mark could. In a classroom his mind roamed, his fingers and feet fidgeted, the words on the page in front of him danced themselves into a blur. He flunked first grade, then flunked second. A few friends taunted him, but most of them just moved on to the next grade and forgot him. Tall for his age, he towered over classmates two years younger, and when he dominated them at recess, it only made things worse. Patiently his dad tried to tutor him, but the words kept dancing and the boy knew he was disappointing everyone. "I stopped raising my hand in class," he says. "I wanted to disappear. I still have an inferiority complex about it today. I remember my Aunt Nel telling me that you should go into the woods and scream if you felt real bad. I thought she was crazy back then."
Ten or 15 people might show up at his high school baseball games—played when the outfield snow had melted—and sometimes almost that many ground balls skipped by his fielders' gloves. His father urged him not to quit. Says the younger Fidrych, "He'd say, 'Mahk, you're not the smartest kid in the world, and there's money to be made in sports.' Your dad tells you something when you're a kid, you believe him, right?"
Everyone in town thought Mark was just a wild, fun-loving, floppy-haired hyper kid, quick to do 360s in his sister's car on the frozen pond or lie on his back on a barroom dance floor and wriggle to the music. (Why, don't you know, that's The Worm.) Underneath, he often didn't feel that way at all. "Sometimes," he says, "I'd think, 'Why live?' "
His father wanted him to go to college, Mark wanted to do oil changes at Pierce's Sunoco. For his dad, he would do almost anything. His first Scholastic Aptitude Test score was too low for college entrance, so he gave his ID card to a smart buddy who had offered to pinch-hit for the second. The difference was so dramatic that the SAT board officially notified him he was a cheater.
Suddenly, miraculously, came the call from the Detroit Tigers, and Fidrych didn't need the car on the pond to feel himself spin. "All of a sudden I had guys behind me who could field; I just threw strikes and let the other team hit ground balls," he says. "All of a sudden people actually wanted to hear what I had to say!"